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Bill Targets Massage Parlors Used As Prostitution Fronts

By Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States/Wikimedia Commons

Massage parlors are everywhere in Las Vegas and Reno. There are 1,000 of them in Clark County alone, in addition to 400 reflexology shops.

Some of them are legitimate, but some are fronts for prostitution.

It’s been an ongoing battle in our state, as the cities, counties and law enforcement work to shut down these nefarious operations, but so far it’s been a losing fight.

Jill Tolles is an assemblywoman from Washoe County. She introduced a bill at the Nevada Legislature that would bring stiffer penalties to businesses that advance prostitution.

Under current Nevada law, the victims in the illicit parlors have to testify against the business owners, but very few people will because many are there under threat of violence. Assemblywoman Tolles said Assembly Bill 166 allows for other evidence to be presented in the case.  

"What that does is close that loophole to allow law enforcement and the district attorneys to be able to bring forward that business owner with charges and still protect the victim from having to come forward against their captor," she said. 

Sgt. Greg Everett is a vice investigator with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. He said there are a lot of massage parlors that are fronts for prostitution in Southern Nevada. However, they can't know the actual number because they have no way to track it.

"It is not until we go in there with special investigations with Metro that we can actually learn how many people are actually in there," he said. "Sometimes they are packed in the back and they live there and work out of that business 24/7."

Sgt. Jeremy Melville is with Metro's special investigations unit. He said they often find the illicit massage parlors when someone looking for a legitimate massage go to one and are solicited for sex. 

Officers also monitor places to look for signs that it might be a home for illegal prostitution. One indicator is taxis and ride-shares frequently dropping off and picking up people.

Melville also said that the majority of women in massage parlors are Asian women who are undocumented immigrants. So, when a parlor is busted by police, the victims don't talk to police because of their immigration status and because of the language barrier.

While there are women in the parlors that are there against their will, Melville said many women were prostitutes in their home country and are coming to the United States to make more money.

"They are normally working there willingly," he said. "They've been in a life of prostitution their entire lives. It normally started in whatever their home country was and then they are offered what they think is going to be a better situation by people in their home agency."

While many women are there willingly, Deputy District Attorney Jim Sweetin said they are still victims. 

Sweetin said women in this situation don't know another lifestyle and don't see a way out. He said in his 25 years as a prosecutor he says he has never seen a happy sex worker.

Plus, he said the actual workers benefit very little from working. They are promised more money, but most of the money goes to the business owners, which is why Sweetin supports Assemblywoman Tolles' bill.

"The bigger problem here is the actual business itself," he said. "Because the actual women who are doing the work are pawns in a system that gives the folks who are establishing these businesses all the money essentially."

Sweetin said if the bill is passed into law, it will give police more power to prosecute the business owners. Under the law, business owners will have 30 days to make reasonable efforts to clean up their business of prostitution. If they don't, they could face a felony charge.

"That gives real teeth to the police at this point that they don't have," he said.

While Metro and the District Attorney's Office are working to stop illegal prostitution in Southern Nevada, outgoing Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin has a different perspective.

"You cannot regulate. You cannot control. You cannot police what is illegal - if there is money involved," he said.

Coffin, who said he lost his virginity in a Nye County brothel when he was 16 years old, said the Legislature needs to allow for the regulation of prostitution.

He said there are simply not enough prosecutors or law enforcement officers to dismantle illegal prostitution in Nevada.

Greg Everett, vice investigations, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police; Jeremy Melville, special investigations, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police;  Jim Sweetin, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Clark County District Attorney;  Bob Coffin, City Councilman, Las Vegas 

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.